This week we spent a few days in a National Trust cottage on the Isle of Wight. When we booked, we unfortunately had not realised that the Isle of Wight Festival was on the very same weekend, although all this really meant for us was that the ferry from Southampton was busy. But the crossing was really interesting, all the same. From the meadows we often see these enormous car transporters at a distance sailing along the shipping lane and so we appreciated getting the chance to see one up close at last:
It has an opening on its side to enable ship-to-ship transfers, such as getting the pilot on board when coming into port.
The cars being loaded and unloaded are stored in multistories on the dock
It seems that Cruise Liners are back sailing the seven seas again after their long period of moth-balling. This monster block of flats, the Sky Princess, is off this week for a six day tour up to Glasgow and Belfast and back. Three of the six days are sea days and so there must be lots to enjoy on board:
I was shocked by this apocalyptic view of the Esso refinery at Fawley on the banks of Southampton Water:
It has been several decades since I was last in the Isle of Wight and it was exciting to arrive in Cowes.
Our cottage was in the south of the island, on the secluded and wonderful countryside estate of Wydcombe saved for the nation by the National trust:
I knew that there were Red Squirrels on the island and so had brought some peanuts and a trail camera to try to see one. But I hadn’t anticipated that it would be so easy – there was actually one in the back garden of the cottage when we arrived and we pretty much saw them wherever we went.
How wonderful to have Red Squirrels burying nuts in the garden:
There were some lovely walks from the cottage, one of which took us up to to St Catherine’s Oratory. This used to be a complete chapel built around 1328 but now just the tower remains which was used as a beacon to protect shipping until the 17th century.
A view westwards from Blackgang Chine along the south coast and ending in the Needles. This photo shows a striking change in geology – brown cliffs give way to white chalk cliffs in the distance:
One morning we visited Carisbrooke Castle, where Charles the First was imprisoned for fourteen months before his execution in 1649.
Jackdaws have been associated with the castle for hundreds of years:
Nine species of Bat have been recorded roosting at the castle:
Walking along the ramparts, we noticed something interesting in one of the gatehouse towers:
We also visited Ventnor Botanic Garden which felt warm and humid and put us very much in mind of Gibraltar
Ventnor has Britain’s oldest colony of Wall Lizards. These reptiles are thought to be non-native but they have been in Ventnor for hundreds of years.
We were thinking that we might see some White-tailed Eagles while we were staying on the island. The Roy Dennis Foundation has released twenty-five of these eagles on the Isle of Wight over the last three years. They are all satellite tagged and so he knows that, although the 2020 birds are mainly off exploring elsewhere at the moment, the 2019 birds have now largely returned to the island and the 2021 birds are yet to disperse, meaning that there is quite a concentration of these magnificent birds here.
The only one we saw, however, is this stuffed one at Osbourne House, Queen Victoria’s beloved holiday residence and where she died in 1901.
The Isle of Wight is a relatively small island – only 36km wide and 22km deep and with a population of 142,000 people. We didn’t get to explore the west of the island during our stay and there is much more to see, so we hope that we will return before too long.
One of the trail cameras got bumped sideways this week so that it was pointing at the hedgerow that runs alongside the feeding cages. Throughout that day, it took photos of a pair of rats emerging from the vegetation and venturing out across open ground to eat the bird seed:
But I now realise that these animals are risking their lives every time they come out into the open:
I was a bit surprised to see that corvids are actively hunting rodents like this. I had presumed that our rat population was held in check by foxes:
This reminded me that we have also once seen a Weasel with a young rat:
Although we have rats, we have never had a rat problem because there are so many things out there that want to eat them.
At this time of year, the hedgerows are laden with fruits and seeds such as Sloes, Rose hips, Dogwood berries, Blackberries, Old Man’s Beard and Haws.
Many of the wild roses have these Robin’s Pincushions, or Rose Bedeguar galls.
Some parts of the hedgerows are heavy with mature ivy which comes into flower in September. Ivy nectar is very good quality with 49% sugar and is popular with a wide range of late flying insects. When the ivy is in the sun you can actually hear it humming from a distance away, such is the number of visiting bees, wasps and flies. The Ivy Bee is an ivy specialist that times its emergence to coincide with the ivy flowering and there are currently thousands of them working the hedgerows in the meadows:
We also have a young hedgerow that was planted in January 2020. It has had a bad start in life – after battling the drought of summer 2020, unfortunately it has become completely swamped by the surrounding lush vegetation during this wet summer. We are cross with ourselves for not acting sooner and there have been quite a few losses along its length, but on the whole it is just about hanging on in there. The tractor has now been run along either side to properly reveal it and we are weeding between the saplings.
We are going to apply a bark mulch this autumn to act as both a weed suppressant and moisture retainer which will give the new hedgerow a helping hand through next summer.
Whilst we were weeding this fledgling hedgerow, we found a very large and beautiful spider and brought her back to have a proper look. She is a European Garden Spider (Araneus diadematus), an orb web spider with a distinctive white cross on her back. These are centimetre squares to give you an idea of her size – she was big:
We returned her to the hedgerow where we found her.
There is bad news – the tractor has broken down! We think the belts driving the cutting deck have burnt out. Unfortunately the earliest it can go off to be repaired is the end of September meaning that this beautiful weather is going to waste whilst most of the second meadow remains uncut. We now have to hope for a dry October.
But in the meantime we are getting on with other jobs. We cut this small section of the first meadow very short with the lawn mower…
…and sowed some meadow flower seed. I now see that the EM6F mixture for chalky soils that I have used in the past has got wild parsnip seeds in it. That plant is a thug and persona non grata here these days and so I went for EM2F instead which still contains a variety of lovely plants but without the parsnip.
In a different section, also cut very short, I have laid some Lesser Knapweed seed heads that were harvested from an area where they were growing strongly. Hopefully, in this way, we get seeds for free:
One morning I found an old rusty battery up on the strip and wondered how it had arrived. But then I looked at the photos on the trail camera:
There is folklore around Magpies collecting shiny things but, on doing a quick search on the internet now, I see that this has largely been debunked by scientific studies. So what is going on with this battery then?
This Magpie below had some sort of stick in its beak:
Then it dangled the stick down in its foot:
The Bird Ringer came and spent a peaceful morning here with his nets, catching and ringing a selection of warblers on their way south.
The birds tend to come through in waves and, as usual this year, the Willow Warblers were ahead of the Chiffchaffs and have already mostly gone. The Chiffchaff wave is just beginning. These two species of birds look similar and I use the fact that Chiffchaffs have dark legs and Willow Warblers have pale ones to help tell them apart. However, apparently this is not true in all instances.
One way to categorically distinguish between them is to look at their primary wing feathers:
On a Chiffchaff wing, counting the little short feather at the front as number 1 and working backwards, there are six feathers that do not have any feather to the left of the shaft as you reach their tip. The technical term is immargination, or lacking a margin. Chiffchaffs have six feathers that are immarginated at the tips and Willow Warblers have but five. This distinction is probably only of relevance to ringers, though, and wouldn’t be any help whatsoever when viewing through a pair of binoculars.
This young Blackcap was a very feisty little bird. His cap has only recently turned black and the remnants of the brown head that he would have had as a juvenile can still be seen just above his beak.
He also had captivating white lower eyelash feathers:
Some other photos from this week:
In my university days back in the early 80s, I remember that slow cookers, house plants and rumtopfs were really popular amongst us students. Houseplants are now triumphantly back in fashion in this new century, but slow cookers and rumtopfs still languish in relative obscurity.
Although I liked the idea of a rumtopf, I’m not sure I ever actually used it back then so I decided it was time to finally give it a go this year.
As different fruits are harvested through the summer, you cut them into bite sized pieces and layer them into the rumtopf with a sprinkling of sugar. I have used our own orchard fruits but I have also added pineapple and nectarines to see how they fare too. With every added layer, rum is poured in so that the fruit is just covered. Then, by Christmas, it should all be nicely matured and you can start eating it – the recipe I read suggested you spoon it over ice cream although perhaps it would also go well with rice pudding for some winter comfort.
I have also taken advantage of what the hedgerow has to offer and made a 2021 vintage sloe gin. Just one day old and already the colour has started to infuse into the gin:
We shall look forward to drinking this in a year’s time.
Last weekend we spent two nights in a woodland cabin in Norfolk, close to the wild and lovely Yare river that heads east from Norwich and enters the sea near Great Yarmouth.
It was so restful to tip back in those comfortable chairs on the deck of the cabin and contemplate the sky through the rustling treetops. We have resolved to try to reproduce this in a small way in our own wood back home and I have ordered two similar chairs to facilitate this.
One of our favourite reserves, the Ted Ellis reserve at Wheaten Fen, is on the banks of the Yare:
Although now into September, the reserve was still thronging with invertebrate life.
I love the round tower churches of East Anglia and I understand from the Round Tower Churches Society that one hundred and eighty of them still survive there.
One of the loveliest gravestones I have ever seen was in the graveyard of this church in Fritton:
Now that we are back from Norfolk, we urgently need to get going with the annual cutting and clearing away of the meadows before autumn progresses much further. The plants and grasses have to be dry so that they don’t stick to the tractor – but is there going to be a sufficiently favourable weather window to get all this work done? I certainly hope so.
A pair of breeding Magpies will hold a territory of about twelve acres all year round. But the number of breeding territories is a limiting factor meaning that twenty-five to sixty percent of Magpies do not breed because they don’t have a territory. These non-breeding birds form a flock with a home range of about fifty acres and perhaps this is one such flock that we saw in the meadows this week:
Here in the meadows this summer we did have an active Magpie nest in a copse of trees and young were successfully fledged:
These young birds stay in their parents territory until September or October when they go off and join the non-breeding flock which feed and roost together. A high percentage of the young birds fail to make it through their first winter but, if they do survive, then they are likely to live for about three years.
Until the mid 19th century, Magpies were very common in Britain and they were popular with the farmers because they ate the insects and rodents that harmed the crop.
But from then until the First World War, heavy persecution from gamekeepers caused their population to plummet. Since the second World War, though, numbers have increased and in fact trebled from 1970 to 1990, helped by the birds moving more into urban areas away from persecution and where there is plenty of food. The population has been relatively stable since 1990 suggesting that they have now reached their ecological equilibrium.
I have found it helpful researching and understanding these birds a bit more because I am not very fond of Magpies. They strut around like sixth form prefects with all the power gone to their heads and they just seem to be too successful here. Their biggest crime in my eyes is the way they predate songbird eggs and nestlings. However, the BTO analysed thirty-five years of its bird monitoring records and found that songbird numbers were no different in places where there were lots of Magpies to where there were few. Availability of food and suitable nesting sites are probably the main factors limiting songbird populations rather than the density of their predators.
Actually they are indisputably beautiful birds:
Here is a Magpie with a Hawthorn berry. I am always interested to see which berries get eaten quickly and which are less popular – Hawthorn berries invariably go first. Sloes on the Blackthorn bushes seem to hang around until last, often lasting right through to the next spring.
We have planted a lot of Guelder Rose trees in the meadows because we had noticed elsewhere that the berries were very popular with all sorts of winter thrushes and, excitingly, Waxwings. The Guelder Roses in the meadows are now laden with a heavy crop of berries this autumn, ready for the thrushes’ arrival in the country shortly. We are yet to see a Waxwing here but perhaps this year will be the one.
In the meadows, there are three of these log structures built for beetles. The logs have been dug deep into the ground and are in the shade so that they don’t dry out and we hope that beetle larvae will now be living on the rotting underground wood:
This week the badgers provided us with a bit of evidence that this might indeed be the case by excavating around the base of the stack, presumably to get at the beetle grubs:
Spurred on by this apparent success, we plan to bring back additional logs from the wood this autumn and build a few more of these stacks.
Some other photos from the meadows this week:
Over in the wood, a Tawny Owl has been visiting the shallow bath on a few nights recently:
It has also been perching up by one of the Tawny Owl nest boxes, although sadly showing no apparent interest in the box itself:
I finish with the breaking news that the last two days since our return from Norfolk have been hot and dry and the first meadow is now almost finished. A few areas are left uncut each year on a rotational basis:
Now, on with the second one before this weather breaks!
I have to keep reminding myself that it is still August. The weather has been dull and grey with a chilly north-easterly for much of the week. We even felt the need to turn the heating on one evening although in my head was my father’s voice telling me to just go and put another jumper on.
Not having known much about them until the last few years, the insects of the meadows often amaze us. How about these two beasties, standing side-by-side on an Alder Buckthorn leaf and looking like Pixar cartoon characters?
They are an early instar and a late instar nymph of the Box Bug. This bug was first found in the UK at Box Hill in Surrey feeding on box plants but it has rapidly spread its distribution up as far as Yorkshire in the last decade by shifting to several other food plants, including the Buckthorn that I found them on.
I think that this must also be a Box Bug nymph in the wood because apparently they can turn red in the autumn:
And here is another very strange little animal. We actually rescued it from the conservatory but I couldn’t believe my eyes when I looked at it closely:
I don’t know if anyone remembers Gonzo from the Muppets, but it really reminded us of him:
This is probably an Acorn Weevil (Curculio glandium) although there are three species that look similar. These weevils live in Oak trees and the female uses that long snout to bore her way into acorns to lay her egg. Her larva then develops within the acorn.
Kite-tailed Robberflies are often seen here, sometimes carrying their hoverfly prey. I hadn’t noticed those really odd feet before though:
We are still in the happy position to stop and take note when we see a squirrel in the meadows. This is certainly the first one that we have seen this year, if not for longer and I suspect that the reason that we don’t see more might be fox related.
Badgers turn up and rearrange the bird feeding cages most nights and we chuckle to ourselves when we see the cages in such disarray in the mornings:
After the long and ultimately unsuccessful battle to try to save the Old Gentleman this summer, I find it heartening to see that all the other foxes are looking really healthy. The medicated honey sandwiches that I put out did cure the two vixens of mange and they are now better, with fur regrown.
From mid August, our front lawn becomes a no-go zone as hundreds of Autumn Ladies Tresses orchids pop their elegant heads up above ground:
These orchids grow in low Nitrogen, low Phosphorus calcareous grassland, including closely mown gardens by the coast. Although they can spread a bit by producing lateral buds from underground stems, they are mainly pollinated by visiting bumblebees and the resulting dust-like seeds are then dispersed by the wind. But there then needs to be a prolonged symbiotic association with mycorrhizal fungi. This means that, amazingly, the first leaf rosette doesn’t appear until eleven years after germination, with the first flowering stalk appearing two to five years after that! Knowing this, we can’t help but feel honoured that our lawn is somewhere that they like to be.
Last autumn there was an extraordinary movement of hundreds, if not thousands, of Lesser Redpoll, Siskin and Crossbill through the meadows. The bird ringers caught and ringed well over a hundred Lesser Redpoll and here is a lovely male from back then:
No one quite knew at the time whether these birds were arriving, departing or just moving around.
It now appears that the Redpolls, at least, were leaving the country because the bird ringer has just been advised by the BTO of two ringed recoveries. A Lesser Redpoll that he ringed in the meadows on 12th October 2020, was recaught in Limburg in the east of Belgium ten days later on 22nd October. Another Redpoll, ringed here on 30th September 2020, was subsequently recaptured in Luxembourg on 5th November. Ringing provides lots of information on size, age and health of the birds ringed. But it is always particularly satisfying when the bird is subsequently recaught in a different place and we can learn of its migration as well.
This Crow is moulting its neck feathers giving it a vulture-like appearance
In the wood, there is one area that has a large open glade rich in Marjoram which, at this time of year, is heart-warmingly filled with visiting insects. Silver-washed Fritillaries are big, woodland butterflies with a distinctive swooping flight and there are several feeding up in the Marjoram glade this year. The female is on the left below and the bright orange male is on the right with the dark lines on his forewings.
A Small Tortoiseshell was also on the Marjoram and this is the first time we have seen one in the wood. In fact we only ever see about one a year in the meadows as well so they are quite a spot in this part of the country. A beautiful butterfly with that blue margin to its wings:
It has definitely not been a hot, dry summer and birds of prey haven’t been drawn in to the water as they have in previous years. However, a Tawny Owl did visit the new pond on two successive nights this week.
The first night:
And the second night:
We hadn’t seen an Owl in the wood for many months so were really pleased to see one again. There has also been a Buzzard:
And a Sparrowhawk:
Also in the wood:
As the country has started to return to normal this year, vintage aircraft are once again to be seen in the skies above the meadows as Spitfires take passengers on a trip of a lifetime along the white cliffs:
The dog can detect a 1940s Merlin engine from miles away and madly chases the planes up and down the length of the meadows, exhausting herself. This results in the need for a cool down in a pond and, inevitably, a dog that looks like this:
This year we decided to have a series of weekends away with each of our children rather than a longer holiday. So this week we launched ourselves across the country to the Pembrokeshire town of Saundersfoot with one of our daughters and her fiancé.
Of course we couldn’t be in Saundersfoot without a spot of rock pooling:
We were only away three nights but this was long enough to get very behind with the harvesting at this time of year.
Overgrown courgettes anyone?
Whilst we were in Wales, the bird ringers set up their nets in the meadows one morning and caught a variety of warblers – Garden Warblers, Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs and this Reed Warbler:
For the first time ever in the meadows, they caught a Magpie. We are now enjoying spotting this ringed Magpie on the cameras:
Another thing that hasn’t happened before is that they caught a Short-tailed Field Vole in the nets – what a sweetie:
I like this trio of photos captured by a trail camera. The female Sparrowhawk is passing the time of day on the perch:
Then, just visible in the top right hand corner, a Magpie lands on the camera and the Sparrowhawk cranes her head around to look at it. A few years ago we got a trail camera photo of a Sparrowhawk taking a Magpie and I should think no bird whatsoever would want to catch the eye of a Sparrowhawk like this:
The Magpie promptly flies off, although I personally would have chosen to go in the opposite direction, away from the Sparrowhawk:
Other photos from the meadows this week:
I am finishing this week by taking the blog off on location again. My brother was so lucky to get the chance to see a family of Barn Owls in North Somerset recently. He only has a camera phone but his friend took this fantastic photo of them in very low light:
Here are two more that his friend has taken of these birds recently:
We don’t get Barn Owls here unfortunately and it is thrilling to see them doing so well over there in North Somerset.
The large field of wheat that runs along the entire western boundary of the meadows has been harvested this week and the combine harvester was still working away long after it got dark and we had gone to bed. By the next morning, the job was all done.
One of the farming contractors told us the fantastic news that, although spring barley was planned for next year, there would then be two years of meadow flowers grown in this field under an environmental scheme.
We went down to the white cliffs for the first time since early June and saw that all the Fulmars had now done what they needed to do here and have returned out to sea for the rest of the summer. The cliffs felt very empty without their noise. The House Martins are still around, though, and they should remain until September or even into October, finishing off rearing their final broods of chicks.
There was also this Wheatear on her way south:
As I was inching closer to the Wheatear to try for a better shot, I found a colony of Bee Wolves under my feet. These are large predatory wasps who fill their sandy underground burrows with paralysed Honey Bees to feed their young. Most of the tunnels were still actively being dug by the wasps and I couldn’t see any Honey Bees being carried in during the time that I was watching. I plan to return in a couple of weeks to see how the colony is getting on.
An ecologist visits the meadows from time to time to check on the relocated Slow Worms that came to us a couple of years ago from nearby land that was to be developed. He tries to persuade us to grow more nettles here because they are good for snails, one of the main prey items of Slow Worms. But there is no way that we want to be especially planting nettles, although we have let this one patch grow in order to please him. This year it is six feet high:
It actually does seem to be supporting a lot of life:
And plenty of adult Harlequin ladybirds of various forms:
What I do not see is many snails on the nettles. However, the underside of the courgette leaves in the allotment is another matter and perhaps he should have been persuading us to grow courgette instead:
One of the glories of the garden in August is the Agapanthus in flower:
As darkness falls, the blue of the magnificent flowers really begins to pop…
….and the plant becomes busy with visiting Silver Y moths
Moths are the unsung heroes of pollination, getting to work under the cover of darkness unnoticed by us.
It is only recently starting to be fully appreciated what an important role moths play in the reproduction of a wide variety of plants and crops.
I found this Silver Y moth caterpillar on a Mullein growing as a weed in the greenhouse:
I had difficulty identifying it because I was looking in the book for a green caterpillar with dark spots. However, I now realise that these spots are puncture wounds where the caterpillar has been predated by ichneumon wasps, sticking their ovipositor in to lay an egg into the caterpillar. Horrible but fascinating, as is so much in the invertebrate world.
Here is another very interesting invertebrate I came across this week. It is a debris-carrying Lacewing larva and I found it on my arm, although I had just pushed myself through a hedge backwards:
Although adult Lacewings feed only on nectar, pollen and honeydew, the larvae are voracious predators that eat mainly aphids, but also caterpillars and other soft-bodied things. They stick the carcasses of their prey along with sundry bits of organic vegetation on their backs to disguise themselves:
But why do they need to disguise themselves if they are mostly eating immobile aphids that can’t get away anyway? Ants have a mutually beneficial relationship with aphids – the aphids provide the ants with some of the honeydew that they are sucking from the plant and the ants provide protection for the aphids from predators. A scientific study has found that if a Lacewing larva approaches an aphid colony with no debris on its back, the ants will detect and eject it. If, however, it approaches with the debris in place, the ants don’t seem to be able to notice it and it can get past the ants to eat the aphids. I find that really rather amazing.
It is thought that Greenfinch numbers have fallen a devastating 60% since a protozoan parasite called Trichomonosis started causing a disease of their throats in 2006. The parasite is often passed on when a sick bird leaves infected saliva on the feeder and so everyone is urged to clean bird feeders once a week to slow the transmission of the disease.
But, despite my best intentions, I don’t get round to this job anything like that often. I also wait for a feeder to be empty first before bringing it in to clean and refill which can take a while with some of the less popular seed types. Therefore I was very interested to learn of the Finches Friend – a feeder which has been re-engineered specifically to make cleaning much easier and therefore more likely to be done weekly as advised.
The feeders are quite expensive but I bought one anyway to see if it is as good as I hope it is. It comes with two bottom sections from whence the seed is dispensed. At any time you can stop off the flow of the seed from above and swap the bottom section for a new clean one, then turning the seed flow back on and taking the old dispenser off for cleaning and drying. It’s very simple once you get the knack of it and I will now be ensuring that I do this every week.
An area of the wood is a beautiful open glade filled with Marjoram, although Dogwood is now also growing strongly. On a sunny day in August, the Marjoram is heaving with bees and butterflies – mainly Peacocks and Meadow Browns but there were also at least two graceful Silver Washed Fritillaries gliding around. Both of these individuals are males:
We also saw a White Admiral although it was so very tatty that it was a wonder it was still flying:
Silver Washed Fritillaries and White Admirals are exciting woodland species and we are so pleased to see them flying in the wood. This autumn we must hack back the Dogwood to ensure this area remains open and Marjoram-filled to keep these butterflies happy.
Other photos from around the meadows and wood this week:
Although we have often heard that boats carrying migrants have landed at this part of coast, we have never before witnessed the upsetting sight of a boat coming in.
These people are arriving with practically no possessions and no certainty as to their future now that they have finally reached their destination. I try but cannot imagine the depths of their anxiety as they sit there in their inadequate boat approaching our iconic white cliffs but my heart goes out to them.
This week we have spent a couple of days on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. We stayed in the lovely town of Wareham which is not far from the spectacular Corfe Castle…
…and also not far from the Arne RSPB reserve, where we happily spent a few hours. It was our first visit to Arne and we loved it – it has a great range of habitats supporting distinctive species, many of which we are unfamiliar with, living as we do on chalky Kent downland. We set ourselves the target of seeing two sandy and heathland specialists, the Dartford Warbler and the Sand Lizard.
Sadly we didn’t see either a Dartford Warbler or a Sand Lizard, but we did see two other iconic species of the area:
In the meadows, we know that spring has come when the Bee-flies arrive. Emerging during the first warm days in March and April, they are around for a short while and then they are gone. So we were very surprised to see a tiny Bee-fly still flying at Arne, so much smaller than the Dark-edged and the Dotted Bee-flies that we get at home and flying several months later. This is the Heath Bee-fly (Bombylius minor), now confined just to the heaths of East Dorset and one of the species being championed by Back From The Brink, an organisation working hard to save Britain’s most threatened species from extinction.
Back in the familiar territory of the meadows, this Crow photo from one of the trail cameras, made me wonder if the bird was ‘anting’
This behaviour is surrounded by much speculation but the general consensus seems to be that the bird tickles a nest with its wing to cause the ants to swarm up and over its feathers, shooting out Formic Acid as they do to defend their nest. The acid is thought to possibly kill ectoparasites on the bird although there are many other hypotheses as well.
The resolution of the photo is not fantastic, but I can see ants on the bird in this next photo if I peer hard at it:
On a sunny morning this week, I saw a metallic green damselfly by the hide pond. I moved smartly off to get my camera but inevitably it had gone by the time I returned. There are several species that it could have been, but any one of those would have been new for the meadows and so I sat in the shade by the pond and lurked there to see if it would return. Sadly it didn’t but, while I waited, I did see plenty of other dragonflies and damselflies:
Hopefully I will see that metallic green damselfly again so that I can add it to the list.
Having removed all the flower heads off the Wild Parsnip with secateurs and bagged them up to get them off-property, we decided to mow the area with the tractor so that it is easy to spot any subsequent regrowth – we are taking this eradication programme oh so very seriously this year.
We have noticed before that, as soon as there has been any mowing, the large mammals are very interested to see if this has created an opportunity for them. As dusk fell, the foxes moved in…
..followed by a Badger once it became a little darker:
There is so much variation in foxes that each one is individually recognisable. As an extreme example, here is the vixen who had the single cub in the meadows this year…
…and this male fox from the wood looks so completely different:
Other photos from around the meadows and the wood this week:
We really enjoyed watching the sailing in the Olympics and we are now enthusiastically noticing the variety of yachts going past:
Both these yachts are used as a sail training ships. The Eendracht is run by a foundation that wants to give young people an introduction to the sea. She has a crew of thirteen but also space for forty more passengers. I see that in 1998 she ran aground at Newhaven and all 51 people on board were rescued by helicopter but she was able to be refloated and returned to service.
The next morning, we saw the magnificent Eendracht again, this time far out to sea and heading back to the Netherlands:
I finish with some photos from the Highlands of Scotland, visited by one of our daughters this weekend, travelling up by sleeper train to Aviemore. She spent one of her evenings there in a wildlife-watching hide and was rewarded with fantastic views of Badgers and a Pine Marten:
On a walk the next day she saw this little thing:
I am hoping that one day our beautiful native Red Squirrels will once again be seen in Kent, although I have to admit that there is an awfully long road ahead before that can happen.
We travelled north to Yorkshire for two nights this week to visit my oldest friend on the occasion of a significant birthday. There wasn’t much time to go chasing wildlife but we did take a walk along the wooded valley of Hebden Beck just above the popular tourist town of Hebden Bridge. This town is set in a steep-sided valley, downstream from the coming-together of several rivers and streams, which has resulted in a long history of flooding. Recently, the town has been badly hit in 2012, 2015 and 2020.
There is now a flood alleviation scheme underway and we were interested to see one aspect of this already in place along Hebden Beck where tree trunks had been secured to large boulders at intervals along the stream. There has been much talk of Beaver pools and dams being used to help prevent flood surges by increasing the water holding capacity of the uplands. Now, in the moors and valleys above Hebden Bridge, unsuitable for Beaver reintroduction for many reasons, they are anyway reproducing this Beaver effect by reducing the water in local reservoirs by 10% and creating artificial dams with these tree trunks.
The charity Slow The Flow has been working hard using local volunteers to get these leaky dams and other measures in place to reduce the risk of future serious flooding events in the Calder Valley.
Himalayan Balsam was growing along the banks of the beck in some profusion. This invasive plant has an explosive seed dispersal mechanism, the seeds thus getting into the water course and spreading widely. It is an attractive plant but, once it gets going, it grows so densely that it inhibits growth of our native flora. Since it is an annual, cutting it down early so that no seeds form would be an effective control, the problem of course being that it is often growing in horribly inaccessible places.
We walked up the beck as far as the gloriously-located Gibson Mill, which used the power of Hebden Beck to drive a water wheel and produce cotton cloth until 1890, employing around 20 workers who lived onsite in attached cottages. Since 1950 it has been owned by the National Trust, now housing a welcome café although it still remains proudly off grid, generating all its power itself and using a local spring for its water.
Back down south, the vegetation in the meadows seems especially tall and verdant this year with all the rain we have had so far this summer.
We don’t have Himalayan Balsam here but that is not to say that we don’t have our own problematic plants. We rather smugly thought that we were winning the battle against Ragwort after several years of operating a zero tolerance policy, but this year there is a lot of it and it is looking so vigorous:
But now that the plant has advertised its locations with its acid yellow flowers, we are starting to pull it:
However, we are leaving those that have Cinnabar Moth caterpillars on them until the caterpillars pupate:
Maybe it is not just us who is having a rampant Ragwort year – I saw this small field in Berkshire on a visit back this week. If ever we wanted evidence to support our Ragwort zero tolerance stance, this field is it:
Last year we also removed all flower heads from Wild Parsnip after realising that the plant was growing in alarming concentrations in a couple of largish areas. The leaves have a toxin that can bring you out in a long-lasting photo-sensitive rash if you brush against them. This plant is a biennial and so we aspire to be able to eradicate this plant entirely if we keep our concentration up and don’t let it seed this year either.
The female Sparrowhawk likes to spend some time most days on this perch:
And this is the most amazing show of leg from her:
As summer progresses and the soil becomes drier, worms go deeper and are less accessible to Badgers. I have certainly noticed an increased enthusiasm for the nightly peanuts. With no cubs born this year, there are four adult Badgers:
Last year four cubs were born and so, by late July, we had a lovely family group of seven of them. I presume that one of these cubs was allowed to stay within the group, while other cubs were forced to disperse last autumn:
The Badgers are also now coming up to the strip to bulldoze the cages aside and get at any seed that the birds might have left:
It has been two weeks now since we have seen the Old Gentleman Fox, or glimpsed him on any of the cameras, which is unprecedented. Despite my best efforts to cure his mange, I have to conclude that he is surely no more. The foxes here are generally deeply wary of humans and that is all for the best, of course. This included the Old Gentleman himself when he first arrived here last year but he gradually accepted us as the source of his beloved honey sandwiches and became increasingly tame. Up until a fortnight ago, he had started hanging around the house a good hour ahead of time, staring hard through the kitchen window to see if he could catch our eye and hurry us up a bit.
Of course I became ridiculously fond of him and it feels very sad putting out the peanuts and sandwiches at dusk these days with no fox hanging round my ankles.
On Friday this week we had a day of strong winds as Storm Evert blew himself out above us. The Pride of Burgundy channel ferry sheltered alongside us – always a sign of disruption and associated passenger misery at the Port of Dover just to the south.
By this morning, calm had returned. The last day of July but there is a feeling that autumn is just round the corner. The first blackberries are starting to ripen:
Fruit is swelling on the trees of the orchard:
Fungal fruiting bodies will soon be sprouting up along this fairy ring…
…and the bird ringers returned to the meadows for their first ringing session of the autumnal migration.
We eagerly anticipate the autumn migration every year and the warblers have now started moving and so it is on its way. Last year we had a Ring Ouzel stay for several days in our garden and so who knows what this autumn might bring.
A few racing pigeons drop by the meadows every year on their way back from the continent. One this week was particularly tame and surprisingly came into the conservatory and had a walk around inside whilst we were having a Pilates lesson in there. I fed it some seed and a broken up suet ball and it spent a long time feeding up before continuing its journey home.
Pigeons have been raced across the Channel for 125 years, the birds being released from points in France and Spain and completing the up to 500 mile trip in a few hours, mostly returning home on the same day that they are released. But it seems that the world of international pigeon racing might be about to become collateral damage of Brexit. Post-Brexit animal health regulations, due to have come into effect in April, require the birds to have a certificate signed by a vet and also to be in the EU at least 21 days before release. The birds would not be exercised during these three weeks and would lose a lot of condition. The implementation of these regulations has now been postponed until October but at the moment the future of cross-channel pigeon racing is looking bleak.
The weather has been hot and sunny although mainly with a delicious sea breeze here which has taken the edge off the heat. You always know that summer is in full swing when the Darters arrive.
Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory, just up the coast from here, recently raised a lot of funds to double the size of its scrape and to build a second hide. This project was finished just as the country went into lockdown last year and has only recently opened to visitors. We were excited to see it at long last and went there this week.
Sitting in a hide is immensely relaxing, putting everything else on hold for a while while you spend some quiet minutes observing nature. I am so pleased that we can once again get ourselves along there to see what’s about.
Back in Berkshire again this week, we walked the dog up into Ashley Hill Woods. I first remember this Forestry Commission wood from when I went on an infant school trip there, not so very long after it had been clear-felled in the early 1960s. Thankfully, since then it has been more sensitively managed and is now a beautiful place – probably my all time favourite wood and one that I have done a lot of dog-walking in over the years.
We have been watching this Red Kite nest on Ashley Hill for several years now. It is much larger than it was when we last saw it a few months ago, so hopefully this means it has been active this year. Red Kites are famous for weaving plastic and other bits of human detritus into their nests.
Hiding under a shady roof of Bracken, we found a thriving colony of Common Spotted Orchids:
Another old haunt of ours in Berkshire is Carpenters Wood and we also visited there this week. It is nearly the seventy-seventh anniversary of when a Halifax bomber, with seven men on board and loaded with bombs destined for France, crashed into these woods. There is still the disquieting sight of a large crater at the crash site:
A plaque at the site says: ‘Tread softly because this is hallowed ground’ and that exactly describes how it feels.
Back in our own wood in Kent, the wet summer so far has meant that the undergrowth is distinctly more rampant than normal and we are slashing and hacking back nettles and bramble to remake our woodland paths. A battery powered hedge cutter seems to be working best for this.
The new part of the wood is densely planted and badly needs thinning and so, in the autumn, our first job is going to be some selective clearing. We are going to prioritise English Oaks and clear space around them so that they have a better chance to become sturdy, beautiful trees.
But because we are not confident that we can recognise these young Oaks once they no longer have leaves, this week I have started to identify suitable trees and tying red rope around them. It’s a shame that it wasn’t yellow, but I was singing the song to myself anyway.
Fresh bark on the ground below a birch, alerted us to look up and notice that Grey Squirrels have been up to their old tricks again and are stripping bark:
I am so looking forward to the successful end of the trials that are currently underway to test a contraceptive that can be delivered to Grey Squirrels via hazelnut spread in a specially designed box. UK Squirrel Accord is a partnership of environmental, wildlife and forestry organisations working towards making this happen and it is definitely something that we would be very interested in for our wood as soon as it becomes available. It seems a humane and perfect answer to a big problem.
Back in the meadows, a young Blackbird appears on the gate…
…and then the ringed female comes to feed it. This female was photographed here carrying nesting material for so many weeks, it is wonderful to discover that it all that work led to a satisfactory conclusion:
I think this is a different Blackbird family down by the wild pond:
Although we often catch glimpses of Wrens poking around in the vegetation, it is rare that the trail cameras get photos of them. What a long beak they have:
The camera taking videos along the cliff edge captured these two fledgling Jays with fluffy white bottoms:
We spotted a large and rather extraordinary fly feeding on Wild Carrot that we had never seen before – Nowickia ferox. Its larvae grow within the caterpillars of the Dark Arches moth:
It had a strange white face:
This is another large fly, Myathropa florea. This hoverfly is irresistibly drawn to the revolting-smelling buckets of Comfrey fertiliser that are brewing away. She is looking to lay her eggs in there, from which rat-tailed maggots will develop. These maggots get their oxygen by sticking their tails above the water surface and so have no need of clean water. However, this has reminded me that I must sort out some lids for the buckets.
And finally, some shipping! One evening this week two ships dropped anchor alongside us, both blue and white with yellow funnels. The THV Patricia feels like an old friend. She is operated by Trinity House and comes here to look after the buoys and lightships guarding the notorious Goodwin Sands that lie just offshore.
The second ship’s funnel was a very different yellow:
Cefas Endeavour is a fisheries research vessel, owned by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS), and she supports their activities such as monitoring fish stocks. She was designed to minimise underwater noise to reduce fish disturbance.
A little further up the coast in Sandwich, The Open Golf is being held at Royal St Georges golf club this weekend, postponed from last year due to Covid. Over thirty thousand people a day are flocking to the area for what is expected to be a very hot and sunny weekend. We shall be keeping our heads down, enjoying the weather and looking at nature, with the odd peek at the television to see who’s winning.